Five eye-catching aurora spots in Western Canada
Seeing the crown of the aurora dancing above my head, rippling green, yellow, purple and orange, I was transfixed. I’d seen northern lights before. But nothing compares to the display of aurora borealis I witnessed that winter night in northern Alberta, halfway between Grande Prairie and Peace River.
Lucky for me I had one of Alberta's best night sky photographers, Paul Lavoie, along to capture the moment while we were on assignment together for SnowSeekers' #SkiNorthAB expedition. And good as this photo is, it doesn't even compare to what we saw in person.
It’s fairly common knowledge these days that your best chance of seeing big, dramatic aurora is in a northern latitude, when the sky is darker, particularly in the fall and winter months. Consider it one of the advantages of our long winter nights here in Western Canada.
For photography, the other factor in getting great photos of the aurora is setting. The main attraction is the lights but having something in the foreground gives texture and context.
It's well known that the far north, like the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern Alberta spots like Fort McMurray (above) offer up some of Canada's best northern lights viewing. But you don't have to go that far for some great aurora moments.
On my travels, I’ve been lucky to see a lot of great, low light settings for northern lights viewing and photography. Which leads us to:
Top Aurora spots in Western Canada
Here are some of my recommendations, if you’re looking for those magical aurora moments, like mine. We’re also featuring photo tips from a few of our talented contribuors and a few great shots from our ZenSeekers audience, uncovering some new talent and locations through our Western Canada community. (Zen seekers got talent!)
M.D. of Bonnyville
For me, another iconic aurora experience was cross-country skiing along the river by the Beaver River Trestle Bridge, on the Iron Horse Trail, just outside Bonnyville, Alberta.
(Be forewarned, if you bring your skis you'll be breaking trail here! But, in my humble opinion? Worth it.)
Once again, I was fortunate to have Paul Lavoie on my tail.
Three great places to see aurora in Bonnyville
- Beaver River trestle bridge - see above.
- Journey North Cidery
If you fancy a beverage and a bite, and don’t mind a little light, Journey North Cidery has a beautiful location just outside town, where you’re closer to indoor warmth and comforts.
- Hamilton House Bed and Breakfast
When you are ready to warm up and bed down, Bonnyville’s got some great BnB stays, like Hamilton House, where you can ski right from their doorstep day or night. (Hamilton House has its own lake and trails, also good for night sky viewing.)
For some more winter fun in Bonnyville (and another potential night sky viewing location), check out Kinosoo Ridge Resort, on Cold Lake. With the lake in front of you, the only lights coming from the ski lodge, you have great open sky views and fun activities to enjoy on the resort. Read more in this SnowSeekers.ca feature story.
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Lac La Biche Region
Lac La Biche Region is blessed with enormous undeveloped space in almost every direction, with provincial parks, provincial recreation areas and crown land stretching for hundreds of kilometres.
Three top places to see Aurora in Lac La Biche
- Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park (15 minutes from town)
This is a great setting where you can stay close to the urban comforts. You can play the lights of town against the lights in the sky, for creative photo approaches, or head to the opposite side of the island for darker skies.
PRO TIP: Alberta Parks rents out cabins on the north side of the island, with cheaper winter rates and cross-country skiing trails out your door.
- Shaw Lake, Lakeland Provincial Park (45 minutes from town) - see above.
- Elinor Lake Backcountry
Best place to see aurora: right out your trapper’s tent (get the fire going first and come back in to the warm and cozy tent
Lac La Biche Region events
Tie in an aurora expedition with Lac La Biche’s signature winter event, the Winter Festival of Speed. Ice car racing, snowmobile races, winter culture and community all fill the February weekend with winter goodness.
This is ZenSeekers photographer Paul Lavoie’s home turf, so who better to tell it? "One thing here in northern Alberta, we don't need to be in a dark sky reserve, you just go a couple kilometres out of town and there you are.
"There's nothing like being out in the open with a 360-degree view, with no obstruction, and an amazing view of the aurora, and the sensation where it's going off all around you, all above you, and you don't even know where to point the camera."
Best places to see aurora in Peace River
- Local lakes: "I like to be out at local lakes like Lac Cardinal or Figure Eight Lake, getting that reflection off the water, to play with the composition. In winter that's not quite so easy, but you can play with snowmobile or cross-country ski lines."
- Town of Peace River: "Where we are in Peace Country, you can see the lights pretty good, so you can play with the human element too." For an example, he shared one of his best-known photos above, taken right in town. The image is featured on a Peace River Brewing hat.
- Twelve Foot Davis Gravesite or Misery Mountain.
While I've personally seen more aurora in Alberta, there's no question BC gets its share too. Destination BC recently released an article on some of the top places to see northern lights in BC, and its recommendations are solid. But through our own online community, we tracked down a couple more.
This lesser known hotspot in the Arrow Lakes region was brought to our attention by one of our Zen community members, Cheryl Rennie.
Based on her shots, we think Cherryville should be on our bucket list, and yours. (Who doesn't want to visit a place named after cherries?) Cheryl's shots also have an artistic quality we really dig—give her work a follow!
While we're at it, we'd be remiss not to celebrate our in-house talents, Madeline Williams. Madeline is a regular on our social channels, and an occasional contributor.
Grand Forks, BC
Despite being a little further south, Madeline manages to capture some pretty epic northern lights in her hometown.
In her words: "Southern BC may not have as intense of aurora as northern Alberta, but when we get a light show, we make up for it with beautiful foregrounds. With many north-south running valleys, finding look outs that look north-east is key to see a lit up sky, or get high up for a sky full of colour."
"The times I've seen the best aurora near Grand Forks, it almost looks like a white cloud in the sky, but then it starts moving, and you can see the ribbons and you know it isn't just a bright cloud," she explains. "Plus clouds are dark shapes at night, not bright and white."
Best places to see aurora in Grand Forks
- North of Grand Forks on the North Fork up the Granby Valley
- Marshall Lake Cross-Country Ski/Rec Area
- Paulson Pass (between Grand Forks and Castlegar/Rossland)
"All of these locations are away from the light pollution of even small towns," advises Williams.
How to see aurora
Obviously, aurora are whether dependent, so there's no guarantee you'll see them on a given night. Even when solar activity makes northern lights a likely possibility, you need darkness and clear skies.
You can also sign up for alerts on Aurora Watch, to get notifications straight to your phone when the northern lights are going to pop.
Looking to combine some winter adventure and northern lights? Check out all the adventures covered on SnowSeekers' #SkiNorthAB expedition.
After that, you'll want to pack your gear and get ready for the show.
Next in the series:
night photography tips
Want to up your night photography game? Check out these aurora photography tips from our expert shooters.